Monday, May 24, 2010


Someone in the Commonwealth of Virginia has a sense of humor. Our state educational standards are refered to as the Virginia Standards of Learning, or the SOLs.

Last week was the big week in Z's school. They spent four days of last week taking standardized, multiple-choice test to determine whether or not the school met the state standards. Poor Z was completely tied in knots over the tests. We tried to explain that these tests don't evaluate Z, but rather evaluate the school.

The school has been building up the children's anxiety over these tests for about a month. They have done practice tests. They have done practice scenarios. They've sent home study materials. They've sent home a study CD-ROM. They've sent home big, fat textbooks. While I understand the school's anxiety over their rating - I can't understand a system where it is okay to make a nine-year-old freaked out about bubbling in some circles.

We are creating a society of anxiety-ridden bubble fillers, rather than creative thinkers. If we need anything, we need a system that values creative, bright kids. Maybe its time we scrap it all, start with some innovative teachers and try again?

I'm going to do that next year. Z is the most innovative person I know. And, who knows better what lights his fire for learning? Z is (mostly) going to educate himself next year. And, I bet he does just as well as the system and with less anxiety. This isn't to say I am comfortable with the whole notion (read - petrified). But, if he comes out of it feeling good about himself, having practiced writing some, and having kept up (a little) in math and science where he is way ahead - we can't be too far off.

Friday, May 14, 2010

On the Precipice

I feel as though I am leaning precariously over a great abyss. This abyss is the emptiness that we will fill if we unschool our son next year.

Beautiful, gentle, introspective Z is having a difficult time in school. Don't get me wrong, he loves to learn, and reads constantly (I catch mysefl saying things like: "Put the book down and eat"). We have struggled for three years now trying to get him what he needs in the system. He scores exceedingly well on tests, aces work that interests him, and can't start work that he finds dull. He gets caught surrepticiously reading when he should be doing worksheets. When asked to do a little open-ended project, he imagines this great ambitious project - too complex to really complete, then gets lost in implementation.

His teachers have trouble trying to help him. His primary teacher this year clearly thinks he is being lazy. We've tried to point out that, if he had dyslexia, she'd help him read. Helping a child with attentional issues get organized and start is the same thing. She is not a believer.

The school refuses to formally identify his needs or put an IEP in place. He is gifted, does well on tests, aces the work he does hand in - what's the problem? Except, he only hands in a fraction of the work, much of that done at home with our nagging, cajoling, and surrendering positive family time to get it done.

So, while working full-time in a college, and doing everything else, I am planning to (probably?) homeschool/unschool him next year in a corner of my office.

Am I insane?

My planned curriculum is to let him do what he loves most (learn and read, about anything and everything), do some structured math stuff, write both creatively (comic book, maybe) and reflectively (a journal reflecting on his readings), and explore.

Will this work?

This great, gaping hole stands in front of us, for me to help him fill.

Teaching Good Sportsmanship.

B is participating in the chess tournament at school. While he has lagged in a few areas of academic development, the kid totally rocks at spatial reasoning. He is a first grader, and this year the chess tournament was not divided K-2 and 3-5, there is one tournament K-5. J volunteers every week of the year in the chess club, teaching all of the kids how to play and helping them out, a little extra time with our boys each week.

Winning the tournament is not our goal for B. Frankly, in first grade, it would probably be unrealistic. We want him to love the game, flex his brain muscles a bit, and have some fun. Every week, before the tournament, we review our goals: Play as smart as you can. Be kind to your opponent. Be gracious regardless of the outcome - you are there for fun.

The tournament is run by the teacher assigned to the Talented and Gifted Program (TAG). It is a somewhat ironic placement because, while she is really enthusiastic, she isn't so much "gifted". As such, the TAG program is notorious for being "more" stuff, rather than "more interesting" stuff for the TAG kids. This is what we've experienced with Z in the program and one of many reasons we are on the verge of homeschooling Z next year.

The TAG teacher was unable to figure out how to run a double elimination round-robin. So, J made a diagram for her showing how the brackets work. She thought that was too complicated and couldn't understand the winner and loser brackets, so decided on a double-elimination point system instead. Two losses and your out, but the point leader still standing at the end takes all. A reasonable alternative.

At six-years-old and in first grade, B is having a great run. The first week, he played a disappointed third grader that wanted to play someone older, so she would be "challenged" - B beat her. The second week, he faced a fifth-grader. This fifth-grader was cocky about facing a first grader at the start of the game - and started trash talking. B hasn't ever really heard "trash-talk" before. Then, when B started to gain the advantage, the fifth-grader (let's call him Joe) started trying to cajole B into making foolish moves: "you don't want to do that", "watch out, probably not a good idea", "oh, yeah - move that one". Finally, B was getting flustered, so J pointed out to him that he should play his own game and not let someone else manipulate him. A few moves later, B won by check-mate. J explained the circumstance to the TAG teacher, and mentioned that she really needs to talk to Joe about table talk, because it is really not allowed in chess.

Joe went to his mom (a teacher in the school) to complain that B's dad helped B win. Joe's mom went to the TAG teacher to complain. TAG teacher says "Oh, I'll talk to him about not helping his child". TAG teacher did not point out that Joe's behavior was unsportsmanlike. Then, she relented and while B kept the points for the win, she gave Joe a bye for the game that he lost. This solution is not great, but perhaps reasonable in that J did speak to B during the game. This would have been fine if accompanied by some sincere messages about fair play and honor.

But, it doesn't end there. The bitching has continued, Joe's mom has continued her relentles complaining that Joe was unfairly beaten due to J's assistance. So, this morning, the teacher announced that she has given both Joe and B wins for the game.

Since then, B has defeated a third grader and another fifth-grader, both by check-mate. B is tied for first in the tournament - with Joe.

This leaves me with so many questions:
  • Do we wonder why Americans have a reputation for bad sportsmanship and whining?
  • What kind of message does this send to children about honor and sportsmanship?
  • How can we still respect this teacher for not (at least) making a point about fair play?
  • Will B still like chess after this?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Mouths of Babes

Z has been having a really rough go of it in school. That is, he is learning everything that he should for his age group... but, he is unhappy and is having a very difficult time succeeding on assignments and getting the work done. Much of the work is pretty much "busywork", with little value-added.

This amazing child that can smoke all of their achievement tests feels terrible about himself and his achievements because he can't finish their assigned worksheets. So, we are thinking of home(office)-schooling him next year. When asked how he felt about the idea, he said he wasn't sure about it.

"Why? What is the downside to home-schooling?"

"Well, mom, I think that it is really important that I get a quality education."